Another instructive piece for younger readers today, as we learn more about nature in the company of wild life expert Uncle Geoffrey. As usual, Uncle Geoffrey is out for a countryside ramble with his favourite nephew and niece, Robert and Susan. .
Although there had been one or two slight frosts in October, most of the leaves were still on the trees, waiting for the big fall. Uncle Geoffrey paused under a walnut tree, looking up past the curling green leaves into the branches, seeking signs of a nut harvest.
‘There don't seem to have been many nuts this year,’ he said. ‘It's odd how some years are so much better than others.’
‘If you ask me,’ said Robert, ‘the walnut trees have already been stripped bare by scavenging hordes of Women's Institute members, pickling everything in their path and turning everything else into chutney and preserves.’
‘Like locusts they move across the landscape,’ said Susie, ‘stripping all fruit, cooking it and turning it into jars for sale as Christmas presents. And when they run out of home-grown fruit, they ship it in from far-off Seville and turn it into marmalade.’
‘I didn't know that locusts made chutney, Susie,’ said Robert.
‘You know what I mean,’ said Susie.
‘Yes, I know what you mean,’ said Robert. ‘But does Uncle Geoffrey know what you mean?’
They turned their innocent eyes on Uncle Geoffrey. Uncle Geoffrey blinked at them, thinking how much he would like to have them turned into some undrinkable juice or unsaleable mixture, and quietly disposed of. But what he said was:-
‘Look at the blackberry briars, children - I always think that even when the fruit has gone, the colour of the leaves is one of the glories of autumn, don't you?’
Robert looked closely at the brambles, ignoring the leaves.
‘I don't think the avaricious ladies of the W.I. have done a very good job, you know. On every bramble there are dozens of wizened blackberries, dried and wasted. No bird ate them. No Mrs Barnaby-Scott plucked them. There they are, surplus to requirements, doomed to be useless.’
‘But this is the eternal story of nature,’ said Susie. ‘Nature is incredibly wasteful and spendthrift. Does it take 10,000 seeds to get another sycamore tree going? Then nature cares not for the 9,999 which do not make it. Will most of the baby eels setting out across the sea perish? Nature does not care as long as enough get through.’
‘Nature has the same attitude to life as Russian generals do to their manpower,’ said Robert. ‘I remember once reading about an American general and a Russian general who met after World War II and got round to discussing the best way of clearing a minefield. What we always do, said the American, is send out specialists with the most modern equipment. Do you? said the Russian. Oh, we send out a squad of infantrymen surplus to requirements and make them walk across the minefield. You'd be surprised how quickly it clears the mines.’
‘That is abominable,’ said Uncle Geoffrey, who had been listening aghast.
‘But nature would approve of it,’ said Susan. ‘Just as it would approve of those restaurants which throw away so much good food and those supermarkets which chuck out everything past the sell-by date, though there is nothing wrong with it.’
‘The Tesco theory of natural survival!’ said Robert. ‘Brilliant, Susie!’
‘Look!’ said Uncle Robert, desperate to change the subject. ‘Little wild plums! I bet they're sweet and juicy after the recent lovely sunny weather! Let's try one.’
‘They're not plums,’ said Robert. ‘They're sloes. They're bitter. They're horrible. I wouldn't try one if I were you . . . Oh. Too late.’
The spectacle of Uncle Geoffrey bent over, doubled up with agony, seemed to support his theory.
‘We could always make sloe gin, I suppose,’ said Susie.
‘Waste of time,’ said Robert briskly. ‘Gin already tastes delightfully of juniper berries. Why adulterate it with piles of tooth-rotting sugar and palate-curdling sloes?’
‘You're right,’ said Susie. ‘Come on, Uncle Geoffrey - keep up!’
And as the children turned purposefully for home, Uncle Geoffrey, still creased up with the horror of the mouth-puckering sloe in his mouth, followed them slowly, with comforting thoughts of child-poisoning bubbling in his heart.
The Independent Thursday Oct 30 03